eliot hall group 1917 image

Students and faculty, 1915.

Winner of the 2013 Elizabeth Mason Award

In recognizing the Reed Oral History Project with their most prestigious award, the Oral History Association found the project to “have been completed at consistently high standards of professionalism, ethics, and scholarly rigor.  It makes ‘important contributions to the social and cultural history of education,’ as well as regional and social history, especially around the topics of class and cultural tensions on and off campus, McCarthyism, and student activism.”

About the Project

In a very real sense, the Reed Oral History Project had its genesis in 1934 during a renovation of the attic in Eliot Hall, when a packet of Simeon Reed’s business and private papers were discovered beneath the floorboards. Dorothy O. Johansen, a 1933 Reed College graduate, had just returned to Portland with a master’s degree in medieval history from the University of Washington, and was working at the college as a graduate assistant. Reed’s president at the time, Dexter Keezer, offhandedly said to her, “You’re a medieval historian; you have some study in that. Why don’t you catalogue these papers?” Johansen proceeded to prepare a short history of the institution, based on Simeon Reed’s papers, for the college’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 1936. That effort involved interviewing people who had known Reed while he was alive in the late 19th century.

Johansen subsequently earned a Ph.D. in American history, specifically the history of the Pacific Northwest, and returned to Reed to teach history and humanities. In 1959, she received a grant from the Ford Foundation to write a history of Reed College, and began interviewing, both in person and by mail, many of the figures who had participated in establishing the school. In 1969, Johansen retired from full-time teaching at Reed and became the college’s part-time archivist, a position in which she continued to work on her history of Reed.

By the time I went to work for her as a student at Reed in the late 1970s, Johansen had succeeded in writing much of the first decade of the college’s history, but was caught up in continually reworking the book’s opening chapters, trying to get the story exactly right. She impressed upon me that those early years at Reed had laid the foundation for all that followed. When Dorothy Johansen died in 2001, her manuscript remained unfinished, ending in 1919.

The impetus for the formal launch of the Reed Oral History Project occurred in 1995, on a sad note. Virginia Mackenzie, an alumna from Reed’s second graduating class in 1916, having just celebrated her hundredth birthday, was anxious to share her memories of early Reed with the college. Mackenzie had excelled at Reed, and immediately following graduation had been appointed a lecturer in classics at the college. In 1918, she had left Portland and sailed to Japan, where she spent the next forty years teaching and serving as principal of a Presbyterian missionary school. Unfortunately, by the time a college representative was dispatched to interview Mackenzie, her mental health had deteriorated to the point that all she could manage upon meeting him was a smile.

This raised with the Reed Alumni Association the importance of interviewing aging alumni before their stories were lost to time. Thus began what became a thirteen-year project to interview former students as well as retired faculty members, trustees, and administrators as a gift to the college for its centennial in 2011. Volunteers who were archivists and oral historians or public historians were recruited from among Reed alumni to design the program, and then train and manage a small army of volunteer alumni interviewers across the country.

Over thirteen years more than fourteen hundred people were interviewed, including almost four hundred alumni, faculty members, administrators, and trustees who were interviewed individually and more than a thousand people who participated in forty-six group interviews conducted at class reunions and thirty-four storytelling sessions held at alumni chapters around the country. In addition, dozens of legacy interviews conducted between 1935 and 1992 — primarily by Dorothy O. Johansen ’33 — were transcribed and added to the collection. Taken together, these oral histories provided the basis for the creation of Comrades of the Quest.

—John Sheehy, April 2012

To contribute your oral history, go to Reed Stories.